NationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 19

Revisiting the 18th Amendment or out-of-box thinking

Of late, there are indications from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led federal government that it may attempt to revisit the 18th Constitutional Amendment as its provisions have made it quite difficult for the central authority to function properly due to multiple reasons.

The PTI’s coalition government does not have a majority in the parliament to make changes in the 18th Constitutional Amendment or revoke it altogether on its own. However, the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), may somehow be convinced of the importance of revisiting the 18th Constitutional Amendment and in the case both parties could easily change or revoke it.

It is important to note that Leader of the Opposition, Shahbaz Sharif, has already divulged that he had been contacted by PTI government ministers for his support on changes in the 18th Constitutional Amendment. Whether he is telling the truth or otherwise in anybody’s guess but the government ministers themselves have pointed to the difficulties faced by the federal government in dealing with multiple crises facing the state. The basic premise of the government ministers is that in the presence of the 18th Constitutional Amendment the federal government is straitjacketed to concentrate on its work, because under its provisions the provinces or the federating units have more financial and administrative powers regarding key ministries and departments. Although the ministers have not said that the 18th Constitutional Amendment has been a bad constitutional provision, yet the provinces do not have the capacity to run the departments devolved to them under the amendment. Therefore, the provinces look towards the federal government for financial help and administrative support which the latter may not be able to provide due to squeezed fiscal space and lack of administrative capacity. In other words, the provinces do not have financial and administrative capacities to manage the ministries and departments handed over to them through the 18th Constitutional Amendment.

It may be mentioned that the 18th Constitutional Amendment was made by consensus of all political parties of the country. Under the amendment, the Concurrent Legislative List of the Constitution, upon which both federal and provincial governments could legislate and develop administrative infrastructure, was abolished and the departments contained in the list were devolved to the provinces. It was the longstanding desire of the provinces, specifically the so-called nationalist ethno-linguistic groups to abolish the Concurrent Legislative List of the Constitution of 1973, as promised by the framers to be done after 10 years of the promulgation of the state constitution. Therefore, when the amendment was made it was highly appreciated by ethno-linguistic groups of Pakistan. In fact, the 18th Constitutional Amendment is referred to be the single most significant achievement of the groups in the history of the country. The credit is also given to the then President of Pakistan and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, for making it possible.

Insofar as the importance of the 18th Constitutional Amendment is concerned, beyond any doubt it was historic and the provinces rightly got their due financial and administrative powers under the federation. Although ethno-linguistic groups may have been celebrating the passage of the amendment as their biggest ever victory, yet the real victory was of the state of Pakistan. Because the non-provision of political, constitutional, economic and cultural rights of the provinces, mostly representing ethno-linguistic groups, have always been exploited by the same ethno-linguistic groups to launch a tirade against the state and the federation. There has been a lot of substance in the argument of the groups and it was used as a pretext to launch an armed struggle by Bengali nationalists under the founder of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), Sheikh Mujbeeur Rahman, to dismember Pakistan.

Now when the federal government is trying to build a case for revisiting or possible revocation of the amendment, the ethno-linguistic groups would react strongly to it and they have already started reacting to the government plans. In the process it would be the federation and the state that would suffer because it has been for decades that we in Pakistan have been enjoying a consensus of all political parties to continue with the political system and constitutional arrangements. It is despite the fact that the parliamentary political system has not been delivering to the masses and addressing their issues. The fact of the matter is that the entire political structure of the country has become totally corrupt and, if one is not wrong, irreparable. So making amendments or revoking the 18th Constitutional Amendment would not serve any purpose. If the state has to continue with the extant political system, then it must not touch the 18th Constitutional Amendment at all as it would open a Pandora’s Box which the federal government could not be able handle as it does not have the capacity, whereas state institutions have also suffered immensely in the process.

There is an alternative and if the government is really interested in discovering solutions for all issues facing the state, it must demonstrate its political will. One thinks that Prime Minister Khan does have the courage and conviction but has been cowed down by the circumstances and propaganda to demonstrate the required political acumen and will to convince the people and entire political leadership of the need for a change of the political structure of the state. It would require the start of a nuanced debate in the country, among social groups, civil society, the media, academia and intelligentsia that how to set up a new political system which is reflective of the needs of society and address its issues. The economic and administrative situation of the governmental structures in Pakistan has come to a point where most ministries and departments have become non-functional, notwithstanding claims by ministers and governmental officials. Some sensible among them are warning that the things are not moving in the right direction. Nothing is going to the appropriate direction in the country and there is a need to put it back on track but within the existing political structures it is not possible at all. The solution is to think out of the box, whether the box is the constitution or something else.

Regarding the 18th Constitutional Amendment, for the moment the government should forget about changing and revoking it and instead build the capacity of the provincial governments to raise revenues and increase their administrative capacities. For it, the provincial governments have to rely upon independent experts instead of the civilian bureaucracy as it has a deep vested interest to keep the corrupt status quo intact.